Yusimi Rodríguez

Professor and high school students. Photo: granma.cubaweb.cu

HAVANA TIMES — My ninth-grade physics teacher is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and I am not comparing him to mediocre instructors or those who haven’t had a serious education.

I belong to a generation of Cubans who had the fortune of having good teachers, teachers who were not only well-versed in the course contents they taught and the teaching methods they used to do so, but who were also extremely passionate about their work.

My physics teacher was one of those teachers. His classes would always begin with an experiment. He even did these experiments during the morning school gathering, before the entire school. They were spectacular. I will never forget how he pierced an inflated condom with a needle that was over fifty centimeters long, without bursting it.

I saw him again in my first year at university, when I did a one-month internship at a high school in the countryside. He was the one who recognized me in the cafeteria. We became almost colleagues during this time.

I saw him again a few days ago. The massage business isn’t exactly booming, so he does whatever he can to earn some extra cash. “You can be a professional, you can have a university degree, but you have to be clear on one thing: you can’t live off your degree, not here, at least,” he told me.

I remember him reading a physics textbook during a union meeting. He would read physics books to avoid going off the handle about things he simply didn’t understand. “Why do I have to go get my students at the student residence when they don’t show up for classes?” “Why do I have to give away passing grades when they fail exams?” “Why am I held responsible when they fail, when they’re the ones who don’t go to class and don’t study, and I’m here on time, every day, and work hard to prepare my classes?” These are the things he would ask himself.

I thought those had been the reasons he had quit education, when I met him again, two years later, and found out he was no longer a teacher. He was making money by buying food in the countryside and selling it in Havana. The reason, however, was far simpler: “It wasn’t putting food on my table, sister.” That’s when his eyes lit up and he said to me: “I’m dying to go into a classroom again.”

A bit later, he began teaching again – at a boarding school in the country. “I can’t help it,” he said to me when we ran into each other again. Then I didn’t see him again until the year 2000. Where did I see him? At a massage course, of all places. It was my first, and his third or fourth.

It was something he did on the side (he’d been giving people massages for over a year). I was interested in learning the techniques he had already mastered, knowing the prices, how to put together a clientele – I was a teacher at a vocational institute and I was interested in an additional source of income that would make my life easier. For some reason, however, we would always end up talking about education, about what he remembered of his teaching years, of how much he wanted to teach physics again.

We’ve continued to meet in the course of these years. During this time, he’s been a store manager and planner. At one point, he worked as the assistant of a driver that took people to the beach in a bus in the summer. He’s gone back to the classroom on more than one occasion, and left it one more than one occasion as well.

Teacher and students. Photo: granma.cubaweb.cu

I saw him again a few days ago. The massage business isn’t exactly booming, so he does whatever he can to earn some extra cash. “You can be a professional, you can have a university degree, but you have to be clear on one thing: you can’t live off your degree, not here, at least,” he told me.

I asked him whether he had gotten over his nostalgia for his teaching days. “Never,” he replied. That said, he is saddened by the state of Cuba’s educational system. “We took a huge step backwards with this whole business of tele-classes, intensively-trained teachers, comprehensive teachers, who were asked to teach all courses in high school.

That was nonsense, I never agreed with that. Now, it looks like they’ve finally realized this and things are going to improve, but we have at least one generation that was screwed over by that system.”

I asked him if he would be willing to go back to teaching if things improved. For a second, I saw his eyes light up, but he was immediately gripped by pessimism again.

Perhaps it’s just realism: “I’m over fifty. I don’t know how old I’ll be when things finally find their level, but, if they improve soon…I think that, yes, I would start teaching again.”

When we got off the bus, we headed in opposite directions. I was on my way to try and get a printer cartridge refilled. He was off to give someone a massage. “You gotta go where the money’s at, sister.” – These were his parting words.

He may not be a Hero of Labor of the Republic of Cuba, but he has been a hero to his family, the one he’s supported in the midst of this and other crises. I don’t admire him any less than I do the other teachers I had and were my colleagues during my brief time in education

He’s one of the many who lost the game, in a way. Quitting one’s profession is always sad, even when you make a lot of money elsewhere. It’s even sadder if you don’t even make a lot of money and only manage to get by. He is also a loss for many who had to content themselves with a badly-trained teacher in his place.

I don’t blame him. Education is one of the sectors most severely hit by the Special Period (which we can’t exactly say has already ended) and one of the sectors that continue to suffer the most. There are no “incentive packages” in education, nothing to “pocket”. As for hard currency, you’d be hard pressed to find much of it there.

He may not be a Hero of Labor of the Republic of Cuba, but he has been a hero to his family, the one he’s supported in the midst of this and other crises. I don’t admire him any less than I do the other teachers I had and were my colleagues during my brief time in education.

Unlike me, and even though their salaries aren’t enough to live on, despite the difficult conditions they’ve been forced to work under, the shortages and the education policy mistakes, they continue to step into the classrooms, to stand before their students, without ever thinking of quitting. To me, they are also heroes.


One thought on “A Cuban Teacher Missing the Classroom

  • October 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm
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    Although the situation differs here in the North, nevertheless, there are some similarities. Every few years a new “one size fits all” system is promulgated from above by the educational authorities in charge of curriculum. This happens with little input from those who actually teaching, but rather from the educrats of the academy and the bureucracy. By this time they should know that “more than one road leads to Rome,” (or at least The New Jerusalem). Fortunately, since I teach at a private school, I don’t have to “teach to the test,” as is the case in most public schools. As in Cuba, teachers are getting the blame when their students fail–even if some of their students don’t show for classes, don’t pay attention in classes, don’t bother to read the assignments or study between classes, etc.. Much is due to dysfunctional families, and parents who do not respect or value education. Still, it is worth it when to see those student burning with passion for knowledge (and, in a few cases, being able to ignite that passion for knowledge)!
    Finally, I would say that one predictor of educational excellence is not wether s/he has mastered the techniques, methods and materials of his or her specialty, but rather how knowedgeable the teacher is, and how enthusiastic s/he is, for the subject s/he is teaching. Like a jugglar who simultaneously spins a dozen pie-plates on long stick, I use many techniques, often intuitively, in teaching my subjects. Of course teachers don’t get paid enough, or receive enough respect, up here, too, but the situation in Cuba is much worse.

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